March 20, 2010
LACO donors fortunate enough to have attended the First Chair Society Musicale on Thursday evening, March 18, 2010 had a first class opportunity to treat their eyes, ears and palates to a unique feast of disparate flavors that nonetheless complemented each other remarkably well. The event was held in SPF: a Gallery on Washington Blvd. in Culver City in an artistic space that was both live and lively. The walls were enhanced by contemporary art in the form of large, colorful, geometric oil paintings, while the acoustic resonance of the space provided an ideal setting for the musical treats to follow.
Music was presented by LACO’s own Richard Todd, principal French horn player and member of our Orchestra for 30 years, and guitarist Mike Scott. Richard was featured here in The Stream in a two-part interview in January 2008; if you missed it, you can read it here and here. In addition, I reviewed a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 8, 2008 that featured Richard playing Craig Russell’s Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra with the San Luis Obispo Symphony; you can see that review here.
As I mentioned, Richard shared billing with Mike Scott, classical and jazz guitarist and faculty member in the music department at Fullerton College. Mike has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Music Performance from USC and enjoys a varied career, performing, recording, composing and teaching. Mike was recommended to Richard by bassist Michael Valerio, who has recorded with Mike, and who currently plays in a small group with Richard.
Following hors d’oeuvres and wine, the two musicians opened their brief concert with a Partita in B flat by J.S. Bach, stunning in its artistic brilliance and breath-taking in the technical demands it made on each of them. Rick explained that the music was not, nor could it have been, composed for either of the instruments; the lute, a predecessor to the guitar, was the strummed string instrument of Bach’s time, whereas a horn of the type and complexity of Richard’s valved French horn would not make its appearance until the first half of the 19th Century. This partita was transcribed for these instruments in the 1960s by the great Brasilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, who recorded it with Rick’s teacher, French horn player Vince De Rosa; De Rosa was arguably the most recorded brass player of all time, having played on more film soundtracks than any other single musician. De Rosa was on the USC music faculty until his retirement in 2005 (at age 85!), and he still lives in La Cañada. Rick’s reverence for De Rosa, and the awe in which he held the Bach transcription, kept him from playing it until recently.
From this point, the concert took a pronounced turn in a jazzwise direction. Richard, who is one of the finest horn soloists playing today, has a deep and abiding love of jazz music, and he is one of the few horn players capable of improvising on the devilishly difficult instrument. He explained that, after finishing his formal education, at age 22, he was awarded the chair as principal horn with the New Orleans Symphony. Thinking that he shouldn’t neglect the opportunity while in New Orleans to gain some jazz exposure, he began asking around for referrals to the best jazz teacher available. All leads pointed in the same direction: the best mentor he could possibly get was Ellis Marsalis, pianist, educator, and patriarch of a family that includes six sons, four of whom are professional jazz musicians: Branford (saxophonist and Tonight Show band leader, 1992-1995); Wynton (trumpeter and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center); Delfeayo (trombonist and record producer); and Jason (percussionist and composer).
Richard told of his lessons with father Ellis: how he used to sit in with him during his regular gigs in the Atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans; how he learned to listen to what was happening around him, and to respond, react, and interact with other musicians in the group. He spoke eloquently about how “developing big ears” (learning to listen carefully and constantly) has made him a better classical musician as well. He said that one of the things he likes best about LACO is that it is filled with musicians with “big ears,” and that this fact is critically important in the Orchestra’s phenomenal excellence. (It may also be one reason why so many of its musicians have such remarkably long tenures with the Orchestra; once one finds such an ensemble, one never wants to leave it!)
But, back to the concert: Rick stated that one of his favorite tunes to improvise on is Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” composed for the operetta The New Moon in 1928. Rick emphasized how timeless a truly good melody is, not only surviving but thriving with improvisation, with changes in rhythm, meter, and tempo. Rick counted it off at a fairly brisk clip, demonstrating with its groove how naturally the song could swing. After establishing the melodic line (or “head”), Rick improvised several choruses before dropping back into a supportive, rhythmic role, as Mike took his solo choruses. A restatement of the head, as is customary, brought the little jewel to a close.
Richard reminded us that this part of their concert had not been rehearsed; they had discussed the playlist, the melody, key signature, tempo, and “flavor” of each selection (for instance, presence or absence of Latin shadings), but they had not played the selections through.
Next, they played a new composition of Richard’s. He explained that bebop, as created by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, or Bud Powell, tended to take a standard tune with its chord changes (such as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Indiana,” or “I Got Rhythm”), and then replace the melody with a brand new one, usually rapid, complex and frantic (as exemplified, for instance, by “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Donna Lee,” and “Anthropology,” respectively). Richard decided he would take the chord changes of a frantic Charlie Parker tune (“Confirmation”—he and Mike played the melody through once to demonstrate), and replace the hectic melody with a slower, simpler, more lyrical melody. They played this new tune (which was beautiful!) over an implied, gentle, samba-beat; Rick has titled the tune “¡Si, Nosotros Podemos!” (“Yes, We Can!” What can be more “confirming” than that?!) The crowd’s enthusiasm for this new creation was obvious.
Finally, to conclude the musical portion of festivities, the duo played a Horace Silver tune entitled “Sister Sadie.” (Rick previously explained the choice: Horace Silver was co-founder with Art Blakey of The Jazz Messengers, the first group that Wynton Marsalis played with after leaving New Orleans for the East Coast. Thus, his little story had come full circle.) “Sadie” swung with hard bop ebullience. When it was Rick’s turn to provide accompaniment to Mike’s solo, he did so polyphonically, simultaneously humming through his horn a third higher than his rhythmic articulations. “I had never heard him do that before,” Mike said later. “It surprised me as much as it did you!”
Attendees were most appreciative of the sterling performances; “vibes” in the room were supportive and positive. A Chinese buffet of beef, chicken, rice and salad concluded a most enjoyable evening.